Aug 17

Technology and Respect for Its Roots

One of my favorite pieces of art is Winston Link’s photograph “Old Maude bows to the Virginia Creeper” in which an old horse seems to be giving deference to the approach of new technology. Gene and Roy Hampton just happened to be at the crossing with a sledge of wood destined for their nearby farm when Link asked them to wait for a photo of them with the approaching train. Maude was described as being a gentle and patient old animal, but she grew restless and began bobbing her head as the noisy steam engine arrived. It was billowing thick black smoke because of the steep incline. Both the train and the rail line were known as the Virginia Creeper because of the slow speed going up and over the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia. In a moment that could not have been staged, he captured this poignant picture of the old and the new occupying the same space and time.

Today we often seem to be divided into two camps – those who blindly steam forward with every new technological advance and those who helplessly cling to the old way of doing things. Neither of these points of view is wrong, but it is a shame that there has become such a lack of respect for the opposing perspective. Sometimes it is blamed on generational differences, but the more likely cause for this form of blindness is just plain old ego. We seem to be evolving into a culture that focuses on protection of self to the extent that it sometimes denies the right of others to a different viewpoint. There is a very close relationship between being self assured and being narrow minded. Perhaps it is partially due to the fact that is not possible to see a physical picture of the old and new together except in our minds.  

In a civilized world there will always be advances that will totally transform the way we do many important things in our life. To borrow from an old analogy and twist it a bit: we can enjoy sausage, but we may not want to see how it is made. The same is true to a certain extent for technology. Intelligence is born of knowledge that comes from curiosity demanding that we understand enough of where we have been to know where we are now… and to predict where we are going. Disrespecting either end of this journey is short sighted and contributes to the brain rot that keeps us entrenched in the stagnation that created this line of thought in the first place. It is ironic that professing to embrace the technology sausage without knowing what is in it or where it comes from can actually limit our technological growth. Transportation was improved by the steam engine, but it didn’t stop there. Digital application to processes will no doubt give way to something else not yet invented.

We could take a lesson in horse sense from Old Maude. Recognizing that change is inevitable, give the new ways a clear path to success. This is not so much an issue of getting out of the way of progress, but respecting the way that led us to where we are. Do you see it… the train is also screeching a blast of thanks to Old Maude for paving the way for the iron horse.

Image credit: Courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum, Roanoke, VA. © Conway Link  

Jul 28

The Pervasive Post and Pray Pathology

ParadigmShiftThe corruption of our thinking began with learning things that we are unwilling to unlearn. Beginning with inventing the wheel and discovering fire, we eventually came to worship better technological advances. Often we found that automation alone was not the answer, but we failed to understand why.

Nobody who is a recruiter today would consider spending time by only placing ads in a newspaper and then watching the daily mail – or a fax machine – for paper copies of resumes. The savvy job seeker of yesteryear subscribed to multiple print publications, spread out those want ads on the kitchen table, circled the best ones with a yellow highlighter, stuffed envelopes with preprinted resumes along with a stock cover letter, and then kissed it goodbye by licking and sticking stamps. Archaic? Yes, but it did work. Jobs were filled and people were hired. Then along came that infamous automation and we became our own worst enemy.

We do have it much better today. Recruiters scoff at old school practices and pride themselves on being smarter than their predecessors because they have now learned to use technology to ply their trade. Young job seekers brag about growing up with computers and a whole generation of know-it-all, know nothings pollute the job search conversation. What’s wrong with this picture? We have changed the medium but not the underlying logic. We evolved past job board infatuation and on to posting jobs on social media, but for the most part we are still passively advertising and not engaging. As it became increasingly easy to apply for a job by clicking a hyperlink we have trained the new technorati generation to click without reading and then hoping to hit the job lottery. Back away for a minute. Looking down on this picture from space, nothing changed except for the speed and volume of posting and praying. We are unthinkingly doing the same thing we have always done; only now we can now make mistakes faster and more often.

If there is such a thing as evolution of thought, the new paradigm that discards everything we know and builds something unique is long overdue. Blow it all up and start over! There have been many missed opportunities. LinkedIn could have been the place where hirers and hirees could engage in a dialog for a better solution. Instead most recruiters saw it as just another job board and LinkedIn has complied by giving them just what they wanted… not what they needed. Ask a job seeker where they look for jobs and most often it sounds like using the internet to replace that kitchen table/highlighter drill. Nothing has changed. Nobody sees the similarities of today’s methodology to the old ways, but everybody complains about how broken the process has become. It was always broken!

There are signs that people are searching for that better way of doing it. Several companies are rolling out job-to-candidate matching services following the online dating model. So far most of them fall short because it is a software programmer’s concept using the less expensive word matching model rather than any hint of the more expensive true artificial intelligence. Since money rules all, we trade efficiency and time for glitzy dumb systems that repeat the past. They have automated the buzz word bingo and eliminated the human element. It is sold to companies wanting to save a buck and job seekers wanting magic. The biggest flaw is the same as the dating models; it doesn’t work unless people are talking to each other. Ironically, the same people who are complaining that computers are narrowing their chances of a job through an applicant tracking system are hoping that a computer will find that perfect match painlessly and without any effort on their part.

The Zappos story is another unique attempt at changing the paradigm. There are no job postings… period! Well how about that! One way to eliminate the recruiting black hole is to eliminate the one-way communications that it elicits. By promoting conversations between Zappos Ambassadors and Zappos Insiders a true dialog can be established with the end result of everybody being happy. How do job seekers get to be an Insider? By applying online. Oops! This is a major step toward fixing that broken system and it will be interesting to watch this culture evolve and mature. It will no doubt be improved with experience and is bound to be copied by many… rightly or wrongly.

The real answer to the problem is out there somewhere and one thing is clear: The best solution will always be one that does not disrespect the value of a person on either side of the interview table. It will not be solved by technology replacing humans, but by humans using technological tools to reach their goals more efficiently. The best solution will NOT be to repeat what we do today in a different format. We need to learn to unlearn things that we think we know.


Image Copyright:  Brad Calkins / 123RF Stock Photo

Jun 22

We Have To Talk… Before It’s Too Late!

Last year a BBC article told the story of Julia Rogers of Newton Abbot, Devon. After over-the-counter remedies for backache didn’t help alleviate her pain, she went to her doctor complaining that it seemed to be spreading into her abdomen. She was sent for blood tests and later for an ultrasound which showed “excessive bowel gas.” There were seventeen subsequent visits to doctors and on two visits to the emergency room she was sent home with painkillers. Nobody seemed to take her seriously, but she was referred to a gastroenterologist for another opinion. She decided not to wait several weeks for the appointment with another “expert” and scheduled a scan at a private hospital at her own expense. On June 11 she was told that she had inoperable advanced pancreatic cancer.

How often do we hear stories about solutions to serious problems that start with just treating the symptoms instead of searching for the root cause? We can joke about using a tourniquet around the neck to control nosebleed, but this also indicates another problem: Sometimes an improper cure can be worse than the problem it is intended to solve. It almost seems to be in the nature of being human to either overreact to a situation or ignore it and not react at all. Both extremes are deadly.

Words cannot adequately express feelings about the tragic events in Charleston, South Carolina last week, but we must talk about it. Failing to address serious issues in our lives, our work places, and our thoughts does nothing to work toward solving the root problems we face, so we must share our ideas and confront our fears rationally. We also need to look at the subconscious motivations that somehow surface when we talk without thinking about the totality of the event. Spreading half truths and offering pet biases as solutions is really just putting a band-aid on an open artery.

Not a day had gone by after the nine innocent people were killed during a Bible study at a church in Charleston when the “ultimate” solutions poured out of half-thinking pundits. For some, the Confederate Flag was to blame. If only that flag were banned from public places then events like this would not happen. The anti-gun lobby decreed that if guns were controlled then this would not have happened. Racists accused other types of racists for the deaths. One map posted by a liberal news outlet showed all the southern states highlighted in red as if they were the problem. While all of these and other theories should be included in the conversation, we should never think that any one of these pet grievances is a total solution to the root problem. Eliminating the symptoms of evil will not eradicate the evil.

In an article in Esquire Charleston Shooting: Speaking the Unspeakable, Thinking the Unthinkable, Charles P. Pierce points us in the direction of a solution by reminding us not to hide from such events. They must be part of the common dialog and we must think deeply about them and talk about them. Of course, no one is immune from injecting a bit of personal vitriol to a situation as he did by referring to South Carolina as “the home office of American sedition.” Really? How ironic that in an earlier interview about his book Idiot America – How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free he stated “… the zealot is very often the hardest person to argue with, because he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but he knows what he believes.” So by revealing his own moment of zealotry he masks one of the reasons why a band-aid approach won’t work.

If you believe that flags, guns, race, regional affiliation or something else impact the situation don’t stop talking about your beliefs. It is only by talking and debating issues that we can drill down to the root cause of our problems. If you blindly hold to the fact that your way is the only way, you may be part of the problem. There is a cancer in our world that needs to be diagnosed and excised. Violent actions by our fellow humans are the result of something evil. Charleston joins the long list of global atrocities that include Paris, France; Tyrifjorden, Norway; Kauhajoki, Finland; Erfurt, Germany; Veghel, Netherlands. Think bigger than yourself. Imagine a world without evil and make it happen.  

Image credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters via WSJ

May 11

The Rules for Being Funny… or Serious

CryingAndSmilingMasksHere it is in a nutshell: There are no rules. I’m sorry if you expected more than that, but anyone who professes to know a one-size-fits-all definition for each band of the humor spectrum is lying or misguided at best. It is usually a matter of situation and timing for something to be found funny. In company reorganizations we can refer to misguided efforts as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” but there was a time that nothing about the Titanic was remotely funny. The late comedian Steve Allen was quoted as saying, “I guess you can make a mathematical formula out of it. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

Somewhere between being a humorless stick-in-the-mud and a circus clown is that sliding scale of appropriateness. When we hire people into an organization and talk about the best cultural fit, it is never 100% Brooks Brothers or 100% Ringling Brothers. Our youth oriented culture emphasizes the “having fun” part of our work life, but at some point most people grow beyond that. Could there be a cause and effect relationship between positioning a company as “cool” and the reason that new grads soon become disillusioned and look for other jobs? Last week in the news it was reported that roughly 14% of Zappos hires have decided that their jobs were not fun anymore and opted for the buyout bonus. Is Holacracy really just a way to say Hello to Crazy in Spanish? Now that’s funny!

At the risk of being a liar or misguided (by my own definition) maybe there can be a few common sense guidelines for counterbalancing gravity with levity.

  • Rationality – Awareness of self is the key to honing the impression we make on others. It is impossible to always hear ourselves as other hear us, but we can “feel” our own presence, deliberately find out who we are, and maintain our sanity. According to Kurt Vonnegut, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning to do afterward.”
  • Healing – Patching broken feelings and bodies always finds humor as a good medicine. Erma Bombeck wrote, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” The trick is listening to the environment and training our intuition to find that thin line. It is only by trial, error, and sometimes apologies that we fine tune our sense of line drawing.
  • Speaking – Mark Twain was a humorist and a philosopher as well as an author. According to Twain, “It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Whether it is a company training exercise, a speech to stockholders, a graduation speech, or a sermon in church, the attention grabbing introduction is often made humorous to offset the flow of more serious information to follow.
  • Surviving – Coping with the stresses of daily life is easier when we use humor to polish the rough edges off of a bad situation. Ironically, Bill Cosby once said, “Through humor you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” I would hope that he is using his genius for comedy for his own life troubles.

This really should be an ongoing thought process rather than a one shot look at how humorous or how serious we need to be in any given situation. Looking to science, psychotherapist and author Maud Purcell advised to “humor up” your work environment by bringing kids toys to work and keeping them within reach. “That irate customer on the phone will have no idea that you are keeping your cool by playing with a Slinky.” Technology has erased traditional boundaries of our workplace and we now interact with a broader universe through social media. Delight your family, friends, coworkers and the public at large by sprinkling humorous things in your timeline on Facebook and Twitter. My bet is that it will put you in a better place personally, socially, and professionally than dry data or contentious crap.

Image Copyright: stocksnapper / 123RF Stock Photo

Mar 30

The Missing Dash

It has been said that a person’s tombstone marks three things: the beginning of life, the end of life, and a dash to represent everything in between. As we go through life cramming as much as we can into our dash, other people have dashes that cross over into ours as well. Regardless of the length of our dash, we can always assign a value to each data point in it. After all, isn’t a dash just a line composed of an infinite number of individual points?

March 30, 2005 marked the day of the beginning of one of the most significant lives that has ever crossed my own dash. The resting place for Rachael’s marker doesn’t have a visible dash because she left this world on the same day she arrived. The firstborn of my daughter and son-in-law was born with a condition known as Trisomy-18 with a life expectancy that could be only a few years or a few minutes. Heartbroken, our family dealt with this loss and tried to find some understanding of this tragedy. We hold life to be precious and need to find some meaning in the things that seem to happen without reason.

As we had waited for this birth everyone knew that the prognosis was not good, but hope was alive and some who had forgotten how to pray remembered during that time. It was not to be. The tiny heart that had beat so strongly for nine months and one week stopped that day. Does that mean that her life really has a missing dash? Rachael was a very special soul even though she never grew to talk, run, play, or laugh. She has touched more lives than some people who muddle through their much longer dashes. She inspires everyone to reflect on the true meaning of life and to dedicate themselves to some positive endeavor in her memory.

It may be difficult for others to understand, but that day was a turning point for me. Oh, I never really thought it was all about me and I could not even imagine the grief of a mother and father losing a child. But, as Rachael entered my own dash she changed my life forever. Her life had meaning. For months I had prayed that she be allowed to live and that my life be taken instead. I’m still here, so maybe my life has meaning too. Maybe we all should be more aware of the impact of our dash on others as we go about living and working.

Go forth and be dashful today!


Rachael Nicole Martin

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